Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Poor public housing conditions in rural Cairo, Ill., could force lifelong residents to leave town

Cairo, Ill. (Best Places map)
When urban areas tear down uninhabitable public housing, residents have options to move to another location in or around the city. But when the same thing happens in a rural town, there are few, if any, options, for residents who want to remain local, Monica Davey reports for The New York Times. That's what is happening in Cairo, Ill., where residents are being vacated from two public housing developments that are being demolished, leaving residents with no place to go in the town of 2,576.

Nena Ellis, a 38-year-old mother of three who lives in one of the developments slated to be demolished, told Davey, “For sure they needed to fix this place up a long time ago. But there’s really nowhere else for us to go around here — even with a housing voucher, there just aren’t other places. Are we all supposed to just scatter to other cities — to big cities? Our kids grew up in Cairo. Our memories are in Cairo. And if you take this place out, it’s knocking everything else down in Cairo with it.”

Cairo has "no functioning grocery store or gas station, and a main thoroughfare with an ornate, arching entry that reads 'Historic Downtown Cairo' but one that features shuttered storefronts, vacant lots and, on a recent day, not a person in sight," Davey writes. "Cairo is in the triangle where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. Lewis and Clark once camped near here, and the city was cited in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a wished-for destination that would offer access to the Ohio River and a route north, away from slave states. But in the past half-century, Cairo was better known for racial strife — riots in the 1960s and a tense transformation that followed, from a majority-white city to a mostly black one."

Public housing in Cairo, Ill. (New York Times photo)
"Yet this city, once five times its current population, can scarcely afford to lose more residents," Davey notes. "About 400 people are being asked to move out of McBride and Elmwood, including about 200 children. If all of them move from Cairo for some of the cities residents now find themselves contemplating — Marion, Ill.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Paducah, Ky. — Cairo’s already-shrinking school enrollment will drop by nearly half, and job cuts in the schools, which education officials say is the city’s biggest employer, will probably follow."

Ben Carson, secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, "said he understood the devotion that residents have to their hometown, but the circumstances, including a 'nearly bankrupt' local housing authority, made moving families the best immediate option," Davey writes. Carson wrote to the local school superintendent, “Despite our best efforts, we know that some families, your students included, may have to move outside of Cairo. My hope would be that they never forget their Cairo roots and the inspiration you’ve provided.”

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